Hip-hop slanguistics

Mark Liberman responded to my earlier ribbing. He says:

His conclusion: "My personal theory is that hip-hop slang is far too rich and fast-moving for linguists to easily keep up".

Well, I'll defend my profession by claiming that a linguist who tried to keep up with it -- and there probably are some in that category -- could do as well as anyone else.

Mark is right, of course. I was mostly teasing. But as I responded in e-mail to him:

I do wonder where such linguists may be hiding. I mentioned some of the claimed Wolof origins of common urban slang, and I'm never entirely sure what to believe along those lines because often the chain of citation is not as rigorous as what I've come to expect from linguistics. Yes, I know that it's hard to figure out the record through the dark ages of slavery and all that, but I do wonder whether there is enough linguistic attention to what (hip-hop slang English) I think is the richest dialect of any language in common usage (and I know quite a few dialects, non-linguist though I may be).

I'm especially suspicious of the grandness of some of the claims, for example that the term "OK", notorious for its etymological coyness, derived from Wolof expressions. I don't believe this derivation is generally accepted in linguistics. I know I'm in danger of being called a House Negrah who is too keen on seeing authority in white professors, but the reality is that I can't imagine any possible motivation for linguists to deny such etymology, if it's plausible. Linguists already accept all sorts of derivations in English from cultures that are not fashionable to Eurocentrists.

I'm also a bit skeptical because I understand that Igbos made up a large proportion of slaves, which should allow me, as a decent Igbo speaker, to recognize some corruptions of Igbo into Black American slang, but I've tried and can't find any examples that make much sense. Maybe Wolof folks were more determined to clutch to their language than Igbos, but I do wonder.

One site I did find is this one, which attempts to classify the morphology of hip-hop slang. It's probably not rigorous linguistics, because I can comprehend the terminology, but I'd still love to find other such resources.

For my part I keep up with hip-hop slang by listening to the music and hanging out on hip-hop boards such as Okayplayer. I've never lived in the hood (another rear end slang), pumped a gauge, smoked dro nor boosted any lo, and I don't expect a linguist would need to either. They would, however, have to sort out the various slangs of New York, Atlanta, LA, The Bay Area, St. Louis, New Orleans, London, Kingston, and so on. It would be a big task.

One side note on Liberman's entry. He quotes Kanye West:

I drink a boost for breakfast, and ensure for dizzert
Somebody ordered pancakes I just sip the sizzurp
That right there could drive a sane man bizzerk
Not to worry y'll Mr. H 2 the Izzo's back to wizzerk

On line 2, Kanyeezee is making a joke. He doesn't mean codeine syrup (which "sizzurp" almost always means). He means plain old maple syrup. Liberman says:

Exercise for the reader: in the the last line, what did Kanye actually say, and what did he mean?

Solution: Hip Hop icon Jay Z is nicknamed "HOVA", and in one of his hit songs the chorus went: "Aitch to the izzo, vee to the izzay", basically spelling his nick name. Jay Z is the one who gave Kanye West his break, and Jay Z is also known for retiring, unretiring, retiring again, and then becoming president of Def Jam records. Kanye is just paying homage by mentioning the unretirement ("back to work").

[Uche Ogbuji]

via Copia
6 responses
Since when would anyone trust a linguist to examine the etymology of any language?  A philologist might do a reasonable job, and a lexicographer almost certainly would, but linguists live in the same abstract realm as physicists and mathematicians.
you know your hip hop but evidently you need some help with terminology from the merchant navy. The largest merchant navy in the world is greek. in greek they say: Ola Kola - everything is ok.

not everything comes from the griot
Sounds as if Mark Liberman has more profession defending to do.  Personally, I would tend to consider liguists, philologists, lexocographers, phoneticians, etc. as shades of the same color, and I wouldn't make the same distinctions David does, but that's besides the point.  Where are the philologists, lexocographers, phoneticians, etc. of Hip-Hop?  Maybe the answer is "all of us".  Maybe it's "those same Black Studies profs I'm doubting, for some reason".

I was never one to assume that "OK" came from the griot (whether Wolof or other), but I think your answer is also too pat.  The etymology of "OK" is one of the most ebullient topics in philology (<i>pace<i> Dave :-) ).  "Ola Kala" (not "Kola") is just one fad theory.  Others include:

* "Oll Korrekt", coming from silly 18th century abbreviation,

* "oke", from Choctaw

* "au quai", from French docker usage

* The Wolof or Mande "Wo kay"

These have all been claimed over and over, but none are conclusive.  There is really no evidence to support any definitive etymology for "OK".
The lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary will cover the hip hop terminology eventually -- just be prepared to wait a half century or so for the slips to make their way through the editorial process.

You are right to be suspicious of etymological theories coming from people with big ideological axes to grind. Two centuries ago, before Jacob Grimm and his peers showed how Germanic languages evolved from Indo-European, some scholars worked hard to show that English was derived from Hebrew -- the real motive was to prove that the English were god's true chosen people, descended from Abraham, and the Jews living in Europe were imposters.
Here's another theory on the origins of the enigmatic "OK".  This one purports that it has to do with Haitian rum that was produced in the town of Aux Cayes.  Apparently the rum was notoriously good, and when crates of it passed through American ports the inspectors would yell "Aux Cayes!"  to let the other inspectors know that this shipment should pass through.  Or that they should skim some off the top for themselves.  I think I read this on the back of a rum bottle in Haiti, but it sounds like a pretty good story to add to the mix.  Does anyone know about the origins of "raining cats and dogs"?